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Former Lord Provost tells of pride at Glasgow bestowing Freedom of the City honour

Dr Michael Kelly CBE describes the moment he met Nelson Mandela.

"It was very emotional. It really reminded us of what he stood for and the sacrifices he made."

The former Lord Provost of Glasgow met the South African freedom campaigner in 1993 when Mandela came to Scotland to receive the Freedom of the City of Glasgow.

It was an honour that had been bestowed by Glasgow City Council, then led by Dr Kelly, to Mandela 12 years earlier in 1981.

"It was a big moment - absolutely, because it combined meeting a personality, which is the less important part, with actually seeing a political objective achieved," said Dr Kelly. "Those of us involved in that [giving Mandela the Freedom of the City of Glasgow] did something brave - not as brave as him - but brave for a council to do and it had an impact. That's really the highlight of the careers of the people in the council at that time. That was the most significant thing I did."

The significance of the council's actions was not lost on Dr Kelly when he eventually met Mandela, three years after he was released from his prison on Robben Island in South Africa.

"It was really unbelievable to meet him because since 1981 Glasgow had been supporting his case and the anti-apartheid case," he added. "I introduced him to be a Freeman and awarded the Freedom of the City to him in a ceremony in the city chambers. I was Lord Provost from 1980 to 1984, so in 1981 there was a motion brought before the council and I chaired that meeting obviously and I urged the council to award him the freedom, which they did."

Glasgow was the first city in the UK to award Mandela the freedom of their city, although Aberdeen and Liverpool followed afterwards, and the council were keen to pass on the award to Mandela in person at the time.

Although, as Dr Kelly explained, that was not possible due to the political circumstance in South Africa at the time.

He said: "We had to explore a way in which we could perform the ceremony to him. So first of all I wrote to the president of South Africa and asked him if I could visit Mandela in Robben Island to hand over the award, knowing that he would refuse that, but in a attempt to get further publicity for it. He, of course, simply ignored that letter.

"I decided the only way to do it was to pick another African country in the Commonwealth. I chose Nigeria and then handed the award to the vice president of Nigeria."

However, from the time the award was made until the two men met in Glasgow in 1993, Dr Kelly had no idea whether Mandela had been aware of the city's actions. "I asked Mandela when he came in 1993 and I got the chance to talk to him, I said you're now getting the freedom of the city and you've now visited Glasgow, did you know about it in 1981? Were we just doing this and you were in Robben Island and didn't know anything about it? He said no, there were means of communication there, and they got news through to them and news like that kept them going.

"I'm just extremely proud that the council did that and I'm very satisfied to know that Mandela actually knew what was going on at the time. It would have been less effective in my view if he only found out when he got out of jail."

Dr Kelly's lasting impressions of Mandela were as much about the man as they were about the political triumph.

He continued: "You walk into the room and you notice his presence - he's tall, he had a stature and a presence there. He spoke in a very formal way. He didn't speak in a 1990s way - he spoke perfect English but it was the English of the 1960s or 70s.

"He spoke, even when he was talking to you, as if he was making a speech and when he was asked to say a few words to the audience in Glasgow he didn't just make jokes about the weather or the football results. Again he was in a serious mode all the time and spoke about continuing this work in other places. He was very impressive in the way he spoke, and very serious - he was there still in his role as a fighter for equality."

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